Promoting Play for a Child With Autism
April is Autism Awareness Month
BETHESDA, MD — While play is one of children’s major activities or occupations—it helps to facilitate positive growth and development—it can present a challenge to children with autism.
“Play is an important component of a child’s day, and it provides an opportunity to expand communication and social skills,” says Sandra Schefkind, MS, OTR/L, Pediatric Coordinator for the American Occupational Therapy Association. “The child with autism may face challenges during play because of demands inherent during the activity. For example a child with autism may have difficulty managing the noise and group interaction on a playground. However, by identifying the child’s strengths and abilities and reviewing carefully the child’s environment and activity, the play of a child with autism can be identified and promoted.”
Every day, occupational therapy practitioners across the U.S. support children on the autism spectrum to develop physical, cognitive, and social skills through play. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers these tips for building successful play skills:
• Seek a good fit. Play needs to be safe, developmentally appropriate, and a good fit between the child’s abilities, the environment and the task at hand. Start with activities that the child is interested in and seek out ways to expand the play in length, complexity, and interaction. Remember that play should be fun, and that short outings and play dates are preferable to longer ones if the child becomes overstimulated and/or fatigued.
• Plan ahead when possible. Learn in advance what activities will be offered at special events and gatherings and plan accordingly. Knowing your child’s sensitivities will help to prepare for anticipated events and/or reduce anxiety. For example, if loud noises startle your child, he can learn strategies like moving away from the source or putting his hands over his ears to muffle the sounds
• Consider routines. Routines are the key to making activities predictable, and for a child with an autism sensory disorder, a well-followed routine can be the difference between harmony and a meltdown. By arranging regularly scheduled play dates or self-care routines like teeth brushing, you can promote confidence and help your child succeed. For children with autism who struggle with change, occupational therapy practitioners can offer social stories and other strategies to rehearse how to react to new situations.
• Select appropriate toys. When purchasing a toy for a child with autism, consider the child’s developmental age, physical and cognitive capabilities, and interests. Think about how the toy will promote thinking, problem solving, activity, movement, communication, and interaction. Can the toy be used in more than one way? Will it over stimulate the child, provide an appropriate challenge, or fall beneath the child’s intellectual ability? To promote socialization, choose toys that facilitate sharing and turn-taking, based on the child’s tolerance. Tossing a ball, or taking turns when completing a puzzle help the child practice and develop social skills. More detailed guidelines are available in AOTA’s Toy Checklist.
When building play skills, Schefkind says it is also important to consider the qualities of the play:
• Play can involve both structured and unstructured time. For some children with autism, the routine of warm-ups, stretching, and skill building on an organized team allows the child to know what to expect. However, some may prefer less structured, informal play, such as playing soccer in a friend’s backyard.
• Play may incorporate both creative and physical activities. Some children prefer drawing, painting, or singing while others gravitate to running, kicking a ball, or swimming. Try different activities to see what work best for your child.
• Play includes sensory components like smells, textures, movements, and sounds. Be mindful of these components inherent in playing with sandboxes, water toys, and swings. Note your child’s reactions and preferences and introduce challenges that are achievable to create successful play experiences.
About 1 in 88 children between the ages of 2 and 8 has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the research by the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. More information on occupational therapy’s role in treating autism, fact sheets on the disorder, and tips for caregivers and friends are available at www.aota.org/autism.
To schedule an interview with Schefkind or an occupational therapist in your area who specializes in autism, call AOTA Media Relations Manager Katie Riley, 301-652-6611, ext. 2963 or e-mail, email@example.com.
Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org.